Thursday, March 5, 2015

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness was published in 2011, and although it's written by Ness it was inspired by an idea by deceased YA writer Siobhan Dowd, author of A Swift Sure Cry, The London Eye Mystery, Bog Child, and The Solace of the Road. While the latter two titles were published posthumously (Dowd died from breast cancer in 2007), A Monster Calls was only a contracted idea at the time of her death. Ness was asked to take the idea and write it into a book, which was illustrated by Jim Kay. As Ness states in the introduction to the book, "[Dowd] had the characters, a premise, and a beginning. What she didn't have, unfortunately, was time." It's an incredibly successful novel and won both the Carnegie Medal and the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2012. 

A Monster Calls follows Conor, a 13-year-old boy who is dealing with his mother's terminal illness. He's struggling at school, where he is equally tormented and ignored by bullies and classmates alike, all who know about his home situation. His father has moved from England to the US to start a new family, and he doesn't visit Conor nearly as often as Conor would like. Conor is plagued by a nightmare that seems to occur nightly in his dreams, but it's in reality that he meets the monster who comes to call in this book. He is visited by a monster (who is in the shape of the yew tree behind Conor's house) who visits at 12:07. The monster is old and mythical and insists Conor summoned him for help.

Over the course of the short illustrated novel, the monster tells Conor a series of stories, each which imparts the grey space in-between Conor's understanding of black and white. The stories are medieval and have a fairy tale quality. Conor inhabits each story as the monster tells it, sometimes participating in the action, though he is meant to be an observer. In exchange for the three stories, the monster asks Conor for one of his own: the truth about the nightmare that haunts his dreams. 

A Monster Calls is simply written, but a complicated and complex book. At its heart, the book is about separating thoughts from actions, which reminded me greatly of the Invisibilia podcast episode "The Secret History of Thoughts." As the monster tells Conor, "You do not write your life with words…You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do."

It's a brilliant and powerful book, and incredibly sad. The language is enhanced by the illustrations, most of which bring the monster to life, as well as his nightly visits to Conor. It would appeal to readers of all ages: it's certainly a children's novel as much as it is a story for adults. Conor learns that stories don't always have happy endings, and that unhappy endings are important for all readers. He reflects, "That's one thing the monster had definitely taught him. Stories were wild, wild animals and went off in directions you couldn't expect.”

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Since I finished Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, I've read about half a dozen books that I've started and put down, and just haven't been able to get into. Part of the problem was that, over the Christmas holidays, I sped read Camilla Lackberg's Swedish mystery series, and then read fantastic books by Marian Keyes and Liane Moriarty. I had a really great run of books. Now I've had a run of not so great books. Until Jennifer Niven's All the Bright Places

Jennifer Niven's All the Bright Places has been on my radar since I first heard about it in 2014. Slated with a 2015 publication date, I forgot about it until I saw it in my local Chapters over the weekend and read it practically in one sitting. 

All the Bright Places is a boy-girl perspective book, alternating between the viewpoints of high school seniors Finch and Violet. I love dual perspective books, especially Tom and Laura McNeal's Crooked, which is a standout YA title. Finch and Violet meet each other at the top of the bell tower at their high school, where Finch comments, "let's face it, we didn't come up here for the view." Both are standing on the edge, contemplating something, and eventually, they talk each other down. Finch, who's a bit of a social pariah, is not the right person to be caught with in the bell tower, and bystanders spin a story that places Violet as the hero who has stopped Finch from committing suicide. No one knows that she was up there first, and that Finch helped her back over the railing. Violet comments, 
Of all the people I could have "saved," Theodore Finch is the worst possible choice because he's a Bartlett legend. I don't know him that well, but I know of him. Everyone knows of him. Some people hate him because they think he's weird and he gets into fights and get kicked out of school and does what he wants. Some people worship him because he's weird and he gets into fights and gets kicked out of school and does what he wants. (22-23)
What happened in the bell tower bonds them together, and before Violet knows it, she's working with Finch on a history project about the wonders of their great state of Illinois. Together, Violet and Finch have to visit these so-called wonders and create something tangible to hand in at the end of the semester. The only problem is, quite a few of the wonders are far away. And Violet won't get into a car. And she certainly won't drive one. She's still reeling from the car accident that killed her sister Eleanor but left her alive. 

Together, Violet and Finch wander Illinois attempting to work at bettering themselves for each other, and to heal what's broken. 

All the Bright Places is one of the first YA novels I've read that throughly explores bipolar disorder and how it manifests, especially in teenagers. Mental illness is certainly explored in YA literature, specifically in books like Ned Vizzini's It's Kind of a Funny Story and Julie Halpern's Get Well Soon. But the depression and anxiety disorders most often explored in books for teens are joined by Niven's honest and heart-wrenching portrayal of a teen with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. All the Bright Places is a fantastic novel, and it's Niven's first for teenagers. She's an author who goes deep into the minds of her characters and isn't afraid to burrow there. The writing is excellent and yokes quotes from Virginia Woolf's novels into Facebook messages, post-it notes, and Violet and Finch's innermost thoughts. Reading and writing are also central to this novel, and readers can certainly trace the rich intertextuality from Victorian to Modern literature. Sex and sexuality are also handled with deft and transparency, and provide an authenticity sometimes missing from teen novels. I'm passing All the Bright Things on to the next reader, and am grateful that it yanked me out of my reading slump. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny Han

Lara Jean Song writes love letters. She addresses them to the boys that she loves, slips them into an envelope, and then hides them in a hat box. She never sends them. So when somebody does, five extremely private letters are hand delivered to five boys that Lara Jean never intended to know how she felt about them. 

Lara Jean's love life is further complicated by the fact that her oldest sister Margot is leaving for university in Scotland at the end of the summer. Margot has kept the Song family together - sisters Margot, Lara Jean, and Kitty, and their father - since the death of their mother several years before. She makes the meals, delegates chores and responsibilities, and keeps everything running smoothly. But before she leaves, Margot breaks up with her longtime boyfriend Josh. Josh, who has been a part of the Song family for as long as they can remember. Josh, who is the recent recipient of one of Lara Jean's love letters. 

And Josh isn't the only one who receives a love letter. There's also Peter Kavinsky, who Lara Jean kissed once in middle school and then never again. To save face with Josh, she convinces Peter to agree to being a part of a fake relationship (he's just broken up with his long term girlfriend Gen), one that becomes a lot more interesting (and a little less fake) as it goes on. 

I love teen romance books, and Jenny Han's was something special. I found To All the Boys I've Loved Before completely unpredictable. Even in the last quarter of the book, it was hard to guess who Lara Jean was going to end up with, or if she was even going to end up with anybody. Lara Jean's love life is complicated and messy, and it resists being tied up neatly with a bow. 

Overwhelmingly, To All the Boys I've Loved Before is a book about sisters, and the relationship between Margot, Lara Jean, and Kitty. Margot, away at university, is devastated when her family puts up the Christmas tree before she gets home for the holidays. Kitty and Lara Jean are shocked when Margot breaks up with Josh, because he's erased from their lives just as easily as he's erased from their sister's. Han's YA novel is fantastic (and so is the cover art!). 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta has been on my to-read list for years. Marchetta's Australian YA novel won the Printz Award in 2008, recognized for its excellence in writing for young adults. I purchased Jellicoe Road in a recent Amazon book order, and have started and stopped reading it about half a dozen times over the last three months. There are two intertwining story lines - one communicated through italics and one in real time - there are Cadets and Townies and a Hermit and a Brigadier and a boy in a dream. I found the first dozen pages or so disorienting, and put down the book several times instead of pushing through. Part of my reluctance to keep reading was the reality of a very busy semester where most of my reading was characterized as fast and easy. When the semester was over, I tried again, and I read all of Jellicoe Road in one sitting. The very aspects of the book that initially pushed me out were the same that ended up holding me captivated throughout. 

Taylor Markham is caught up in a war between the Townies, the Cadets, and the School students for territory around Jellicoe Road. She has just been elected the new leader of the School students, and it is up to her to negotiate with Griggs (a Cadet, the Cadet) and Santangelo (a Townie) for control over the Prayer Tree, the Club House, the trails, and the river. But Taylor has a history with Griggs, a Cadet she ran away with several years before on a search for her missing mother. 

When Hannah, the only real guardian Taylor has had in her life for the past few years, disappears suddenly, she finds her world slowly crumbling. The territory wars are the least of her worries, although they are the most pressing issue at hand. She must figure out to navigate her history with Griggs, and to understand the history between her best friend Raffaela and Santangelo. Meanwhile, there is the boy who keeps visiting her dreams, and Taylor knows he's trying to tell her something. Jellicoe Road is a giant question that Marchetta slowly answers, drawing out resolutions over the course of the book.

Marchetta's writing is fantastic, and I've already ordered another one of her books, Looking for Alibrandi, to read next. For example, she casts Taylor as a teenager without connections, who will do anything to understand how people make connections with one another and build a community of caring individuals. When Taylor's relationship with Griggs begins to evolve, she reflects, 
"I wanted to say that I didn't need to breathe on my own when Jonah Griggs was kissing me, but seeing he hasn't touched me since that night, I can't even bring myself to think of him. It's not like he's ignoring me, because that would be proactive. It's like I'm just anyone to him. Even when we were squashed in the back seat, our knees glued together and our shoulders touching and my insides full of butterflies, he was speaking over my head and the whole time with Santangelo about some ridiculous AFL/Rugby League thing. Somwhere along the way, Jonah Girggs has become a priority in my life and his attitude this week has been crushing" (245). 
Jellicoe Road is one of the most satisfying books I've read this year (and that includes Jandy Nelson's unforgettable I'll Give You the Sun), and the first time I've stayed up until two a.m. to finish a book in a long time. It presents a magical story that continues to surprise until the very end. Taylor's voice is strong and unwavering, even in the face of everything she has endured. There are more heartbreaking moments scattered throughout Jellicoe Road than I was expecting, as Marchetta constructs an emotional build that doesn't even really let go. I would have gladly continued to read Taylor's story well after it ended. Jellicoe Road became one of those books that made me understand why so many readers ask authors about sequels; there are some characters you want to hang onto, and never really let go.
"I watch them both and for the first time it occurs to me that I'm no longer flying solo and that I have no intention of pretending that I am. I have an aunt and I have a Griggs and this is what it's like to have connections with people. 'Do you know what?' I ask both of them. 'If you don't build a bridge and get over it, I'll never forgive either of you'" (400-401). 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty has been on my to-read list for several months. I love her books, including Three Wishes, What Alice Forgot, and The Hypnotist's Love Story. Liane Moriarty is sister of Australian YA writer Jaclyn Moriarty (who has the best author blog of any writer, even if years can go between updates), and both consistently write fantastic books. 

Big Little Lies begins with a murder during a parents' trivia night at Pirriwee Public School, although the victim is not identified. After a short prologue, the book rewinds to six months before and unravels the mystery. It focuses on three women living in the Pirriwee Peninsula, where their children attend kindergarten together: Madeline, who has just turned forty, rolls her ankle in her new stilettos while telling off a teen driver who texts and drives; Celeste, a beautiful woman who lives with her wealthy husband and her twins sons, and hides a devastating secret; and Jane, a twenty-four-year-old mother who is so young that she is mistaken as a nanny. The book revolves around kindergarten politics, especially as Jane's son Ziggy is ostracized on the first day of school for an act of bullying he claims he didn't commit. 

I loved when the book returned to Madeline's sections. She's described as "funny biting, and passionate; she remembers everything and forgives no one." She lives with her second husband Ed, and their two children Fred and Chloe. Her teenage daughter Abigail lives part-time with Madeline and Ed, and part-time with Madeline's ex-husband Nathan and his yogi wife Bonnie. Lately, Abigail is finding more to like at her father's house, and spends less and less time at home. Making matters worse for Madeline is the fact that Chloe is the same age as Skye, Nathan and Bonnie's daughter, meaning she not only has to live in the same suburb as her ex-husband, but that their children must attend the same school. When Abigail volunteers at a homeless shelter on Christmas Day with Bonnie and Nathan, Madeline can't quite believe it: "She's never peeled a freaking potato in her life," muttered Madeline as she texted back: "That's wonderful, darling. Merry XMAS to you too, see you soon, xxx!" She can't understand how Nathan's new wife is more appealing to Abigail than she is. 

Both Jane and Celeste have slow-to-reveal secrets and stories, and are more connected to both the murder and the mystery. 

I read Big Little Lies in almost one sitting. Moriarty elevates the ordinary, and makes the daily lives of Madeline, Jane, and Celeste must-read material. The screen rights have already been optioned by Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. Moriarty continues to write outstanding stories, and luckily I haven't picked up The Husband's Secret yet, so I still have more of her writing to binge read over Christmas.